The Great War in the Heart of Dixie: Alabama during World War I, Edited by Martin T. Olliff

Oct 27, 2008

Alabama from 1914 to 1918, that is, during the Great War, is a subject historians agree is understudied.

Alabama from 1914 to 1918, that is, during the Great War, is a subject historians agree is understudied. The fighting of course did not come here, and direct U.S. involvement was only from April 6, 1917 until the armistice of November 11, 1918.

But the effects of the Great War on the state of Alabama and, perhaps of equal importance, the changes expected from the War which did not occur, are significant, and planted the seeds of social movements which sometimes did not mature until the Second World War or later.

Dr. Martin T. Olliff, editor of this volume, teaches history at Troy University-Dothan, and is Director of the Archives of Wiregrass History and Culture. Olliff has assembled here eleven essays on Alabama in WWI. The contributors are academic historians, and these essays are thoroughly researched and heavily documented. These pieces are not fast reading, but they are important and, in many cases, shocking.

Alabama in 1914 was in some ways an island. Citizens here believed that life elsewhere was much like here and if it wasn't, all the better for us. The Progressive Movement was making little headway here. Robert Saunders outlines the situation: Investors in Alabama were promised "a business environment unencumbered by government regulations or property taxes" and "a completely pliable labor force -which included thousands of children?that would not dare travel the dangerous and disruptive road toward unionism." The state trailed all others in child welfare programs, public education, and public health. There was convict labor, mainly in the mines, and Jim Crow was king.

When war broke out, Alabamians, steeped in a tradition of military service, lined up to enlist. The military rejected more men from Alabama in the first half of 1918 than from any other state in the nation. (The national rejection rate was between 25 and 30 %.) In 1917 and 1918 only 13.3 percent of draft registrants were accepted; 86.6 % were rejected for failing to meet health requirements or failing intelligence tests, or for other reasons. It was discovered that 60% of the men already in the Alabama National Guard had hookworm. Ruth Smith Truss further explains that the Alabama men being tested had, commonly, venereal disease, bad teeth, tuberculosis, and heart disease.

The draft physical examinations then became a public health wake-up call.

Less surprisingly, war preparations spurred the building of several camps in Alabama: Camp McClellan, which became permanent, and, most famously, Camp Sheridan outside Montgomery, where Second Lt. F. Scott Fitzgerald was stationed and thus was able to meet the bewitching young Zelda Sayre, daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court justice.

The war also created jobs, and some prosperity, around the nitrate plants and dam being built in the tri-cities of Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Florence and the docks and shipyards being built and expanded in Mobile.

Two oppressed and marginalized groups in particular hoped to gain from their contribution to the war effort: women and African-Americans.

Women fervently wished to do their bit but were limited in what they were allowed to do. Many, in their "clubs," helped with war bond drives, sent "care"packages to the soldiers, knitted, rolled bandages, fed or entertained the troops, and canned fruits and vegetables.

African-Americans enlisted in droves and, where they were allowed to, fought with distinction. Blacks, proportionally, over-subscribed to war bond drives and other efforts, in short made a display of their patriotism, partly, they hoped, so that their contributions might help to reduce Jim Crow and enhance the quality of their lives after the war. This did not happen. The Great Migration to the north increased. Many Alabamians, notably in Mobile, were on the alert for pro-German sentiment among African-Americans, as the English were alert to German sympathies among the Irish, whom they had held down for so long. No German spies were discovered among Mobile's blacks. Several of the essayists, however, suggested that for women and blacks, the freedoms realized in the '60s had their roots in the expectations, however dashed, that had been raised in the era of the Great